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30 Days on a Prairie Farm: Hormones

30 Days on a Prairie Farm: Hormones
Day 7: Why you should worry more about the baked potato than the steak. But really, you don't need to worry about either one.

About a year ago, I stood in the farm office at Larson Farms and listened as Mike Martz explained to a group of Chicago moms how much hormone is actually in a cut of meat. It was fascinating. Their eyes were opened when he told them, "the baked potato sitting next to your steak, which may or may not have come from a steer treated with growth hormone? It has way more hormone in it than the steak."

"Nothing satisfies like beef." --Dr. Tom Carr, U of I professor emeritus of meat science. Amen.

Some background: Growth promoting hormones have been used in agriculture for more than 50 years. In general, growth hormones allow cattlemen to deliver leaner beef and use fewer acres for grain. According to Kansas State University Extension feedlot specialist Chris Reinhardt, the hormone implants beef producers sometimes use (which are FDA, FAO, WHO and EU approved) contain an estrogenic (female) hormone, an androgenic (male) hormone, or a combination of both. The implants, Reinhardt says, simply increase the amount of nutrient deposition from what the cattle eat, making them more efficient. He estimates that without the use of hormones, beef chain production costs would increase by 7% due to reduced sale weight and higher cost of gain. Beef would cost more at the grocery store, which would cut beef's retail market share by 2%. The loss would result in $40 million losses in retail sales and reduce the nation's cow herd by 5%. Give or take.

So there's that. But what do hormone implants mean for the meat you eat?

Harlan Ritchie at Michigan State University did a study. Here's what he found, and the study to which Mike Martz referred.

3 oz. steak from hormone-treated steer:  1.9 nanograms* estrogen

3 oz. steak from untreated steer:  1.3 ng estrogen

Milk: 11 ng

Potato: 225 ng

Peas: 340 ng

Ice cream: 520 ng

Cabbage: 2,000 ng

Wheat germ: 3,400 ng

Soybean oil:  168,000 ng estrogen

*one nanogram=one billionth of a gram

 Compare all this to naturally-occurring levels of estrogen in the human body. A non-pregnant adult woman averages 86,000 to 513,000 ng estrogen; pregnant adult woman averages 65-120 million ng; an adult man has 100,000-136,00 ng; a pre-pubescent girl averages 54,000 ng.

This is all to say the human body naturally produces hormones in quantities much greater than could ever be consumed by eating any food. And if the question is whether naturally-occurring hormones are different than synthetic ones, consider this: the hormones in growth promotants, like estrogen, are naturally occurring and are found in all plants and animals.

The upshot? Your average hamburger isn't gonna send girls into puberty sooner.

Editor's note: I spent vast amounts of time looking for a webpage to which I could source the above estrogen stats. It appears the study was conducted in 1986 (pre-Internets) and doesn't exist online. However, if you find it and can send me the link, you win the prize. Except that there is no prize. Only my undying appreciation! But here's the attribution, used widely all across the web: "Adapted from: Hoffman and Evers (1986) Drug Residues in Animals; Scanga et al. (2004) Annual CSU Veterinary Conference 64: 8-13."

Attribution Update: Many thanks to reader Amy Johnson for finding a link to Dr. Harlan Richie's work here.


The archives: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Kickoff: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Day 1: Working Kids

Day 2: Biotechnology

Day 3: Harvest Eats

Day 4: Church

Day 5: Biotechnology, Again

Day 6: Long Haul

Day 7: Hormones

Day 8: Weather

Day 9: Milk

Day 10: County Fairs

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